Two hundred and seventy-one years ago or thereabout, Cherno Kula Njeyo left his native Fouta Toro and sailed across the river to do a little trading. In those days, the valley of Gambia was peopled by among others, Arcadians and forest-dwellers.
They wore little aprons, cicatrise their faces and bodies and engrave on them signs. And for religion, everyone had his god according to their particular fancy. Some worship bullock horns, some the sun, and some like my ancestors, big trees.
To Cherno Kula and the self-righteous little Torodo imams, the people of the Gambia valley were pagans, heathens and it was justified to wage war on them. Once vanquished, they would become booties, in Qur’anic parlance, ‘those whom your right hand possess’. The British ships were anchored at the tenda, looking for men, women and children to buy, chain, stack like dead mackerel in a tin and set sail for the plantations of America.
Cherno Kula did a little trading of his own, but one day, he veered to one village too far and his peregrination led him to Jarra where the Mandingos caught him. His head was shaved and he was sold to a European slave ship, the Arabella, captained by a Mr Pyke.
Ever heard of a classical case of retributive justice swiftly delivered? Well, Cherno Kula sailed the Atlantic and landed at Maryland. Three years ago, when I was in the US, I visited the exact spot in Maryland where the Arabella threw anchor with our hero.
But Cherno Kula was to be no field Negro, not even a ‘Massa’s House Nigga’. He became a star attraction. His knowledge of Arabic, the Qur’an and religion was a marvel to Americans and hundreds of them rode on their horse-drawn carriages to see and hear this strange slave.
Eventually, he was taken to England where he became an instant celebrity. In due course, Cherno Kula, or Job ben Solomon, as he became known, was returned to Gambia and upon arrival, people celebrated and hailed him as one who had risen from the dead.
Indeed, he returned from the dead, because before him, only one man had returned from slavery in America and Europe where millions had perished; perished in the cold waters of the Atlantic during the ‘Middle Passage’ or in the slow death of the drudgery on the field; reduced to basal beats of burden.
And all this, for the sweet tooth of Europe and the silky linen of its fair ladies! Ever wondered why Africa is where and how it is today? Ask me for one reason and I will give you: the west and our political leaders. Apologists would say it took Europe millennia to be where it is and America about half-a-millennium, whereas Africa is under fifty years old.
But we live in different times and if we choose not to be faux naïve philosophical, we could look for comparative examples in Asia. There are countries that got their independence at about the same time as we did. They do not have the oil, the gold, the diamonds we have.
Some of them do not even have water and have to import it. Take the case of Malaysia. It was formed in 1963 and today it is more technologically advanced and prosperous than several countries in Europe. And the seed of its prosperity is the palm oil, the seedlings and kernels of which it got from Ghana!
These countries had leaders who adopted as their philosophy: ‘There is no option of failure’. They set their priorities right, they studied the world systems and worked them to secure their strategic interests. And one thing common to all of them is the high premium they put on education, quality education. Some of them like Taiwan dedicated as much as fifty per cent of their annual expenditure to education at a point in time.
They built schools, colleges and polytechnics in their countries and encouraged the study and application of mathematics, science and art. They identified ‘super teachers’ and paid them salaries equivalent to those paid to company directors. And they didn’t stop there.
They identify the specially endowed students, get them places at Cambridge, Oxford, Sorbonne, Schiller’s, MIR, Yale, Harvard, Columbia and other Ivy League and redbrick universities and provide them with full bursaries. And upon graduation they induce them to return home, offer them loans to start small firms and today, they have bourgeoning middle classes and standards of life at par or even higher than those of the English, the Spaniards, the Italians and the Dutch.
But during those same decades, we in Africa continued to wallow in our plebeian misery and poverty. We killed our heroes like Nkrumah and Lumumba and let thieves and fools run our countries for a whole generation. Where others built colleges, our leaders built zombie armies to kill and intimate their people.
For petty political expediency, principally of tribalism, nepotism and crony capitalism. We were not divided people, we Africans, are one people, created as one people, individual in the eye of God. If our leaders had any vision, they would have kicked out the dream of an African renaissance will be just that- an academic, pipe dream.
America is where it is today because fifty states populated by Indians, Africans, Europeans, Chinese, Polynesian and people of all shades and tongue came together and intergraded their policies and economies. Europe is following suit. What we need in Africa today are not demagogue presidents like Sekou Touré who would go to the radio stations on Fridays, shout ‘Vive la revolution! till they run out of air and promise to part the waves for their people when they know they are not Moses.
What we need in Africa today are not shiny headed Europeanised presidents like Dikay, hailed by the west as ‘champion democrats; but who have no idea of how to find money and could not build one single high school or hospital in a whole generation.
What we need in Africa today are leaders who know which way the wind blows for their people. Leaders of timbre, calibre and mettle. Bold leaders who would aspire to make pale the vision the dedication and single-minded doggedness to success of Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir of Malaysia.
What we need are leaders who will embark on deliberate policies of social engineering to transform Africa by legislating laws on social reform, especially with regard to women and by reorientating their people from the mindset that the west is ‘Babylon’.
That everything Western is superior. We need leaders who will give the young people of Africa hope in Africa and they can only do this by creating superior systems. And we, the people of Africa, must give our leaders who have done tangible things, a chance. Our Daniel should not rush to judgement.
If our leaders fail to do this, we will stagnate and retrogress. Our curse, the black curse will be final. This curse started the day the Arabs entered our lands and our lives. Then followed the Europeans, originally in their quest for the mythical kingdom of Prester John. And for Gambia, the curse became manifold when the British became our colonisers.
When they came, we resisted them but their maxim guns were no match for our poisoned arrows. We then had to put our fate and trust in them, but for hundreds of years, they have engaged in unspeakable brigandage against us, commencing with the slave trade in the thirteenth century, the barter of what used to be Gambian territory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the French and the sinister asphyxiation of our economies today.
What else could explain why each and every cow in the European Community today receives an equivalent U$$2 a day as subsidy while the same European governments and their neo-colonial apparatus like the World Bank and the IMF in the name of economic structural adjustment regimes refuse African governments to give agricultural subsidies to their farmers resulting in many African farmers earning less than a dollar a day? Where is the morality in this? Europeans and American owe Africa more than they could ever repay.
Take the case of poor Belgium, a little country the size of one man’s ranch in southern Africa. It owes all its wealth to its exploitation of the Congo. Congo, the richest country in the world, was the personal property of the Belgian king, Leopold II. He purloined billions of dollars worth of Congo’s natural resources and in all the years of their colonialism, Belgium and the other European powers killed an estimated twenty million Congolese.
According to official British records, in one hundred years, between 1680 and 1780, some 2,130,000 human beings were uprooted by the British from settlements under British hegemony in West Africa alone and freighted across the Atlantic as slaves. And you have to remember that the first cargo of slaves officially shipped from our coasts was in 1142 by the Portuguese, Gillianez.
The English claim the first one of their kind to engage in this trade was Sir Jim Hawkins, some two hundred years later, but the fact is, thousands of the British followed him and they merrily engaged in this unspeakable crime for centuries.
When Hawkins’ first cargo of three ships landed at St Domingo, Queen Elizabeth I was said to have roundly rated him and in 1542 Charles V was said to have issued a prohibition. But during the reign of King George II, all one needed was pay a licence of forty shillings to the British crown and one could go and buy one hundred thousand Africans.
In actual fact, the trade in Africans only came to a stop centuries later after some American states like Virginia passed a law forbidding the introduction of more African slaves.
This came thirty years before Wilberforce and his abolitionist friends succeeded in getting the Act passed in England. For centuries, slavery denied Africa her strongest; those with the best faculties for tilling the land, producing children and beating the iron into shape. And still the West is refusing to apologise, not to talk of paying reparations to Africa for this most heinous crimes against humanity.
The British should exclaim like Lady Macbeth: ‘will these small hands e’er be clean?’ May be they could become clean. All they have to do is write off all the debts. For example, with the regard to The Gambia, they resume full bilateral cooperation including assisting with the balance of payment support and facilitate Gambians getting easier access to British colleges.
And it’s not like this would mean anything to the British exchequer. The Gambia is special to Britain. We were their first pied-a-terre in Africa, and first to hoist the British flag on the continent. And to a very large extent, we owe our current poverty to them, through their systematic rape of our people and land for centuries. Let them remember, the sins off the fathers….
First published on Friday, 15 October 2003 in the Daily Observer.